The MTA’s congestion pricing plan to reduce traffic created a jam of another kind on Thursday when hundreds of people signed up to speak at the agency’s first public hearing on the matter.
The plan, which would toll drivers in Manhattan south of 60th Street as much as $23 during rush hour, was designed to lessen traffic congestion by as much as 20%, according to an MTA analysis. It’s been a controversial topic since the plan was unveiled earlier this summer, and the heated debate served as a backdrop as the MTA opened the discussion to the public on Thursday in its first of six public hearings.
Nearly 400 speakers were slated to speak at the outset of the hearing, with organizers expecting the event to run well into the night, though not all of them were present when called upon. The hearing – which kicked off at 5 p.m. and began with a 45-minute presentation by the MTA – was ongoing as of 8:30 p.m. Thursday evening.
Michael Gentile from Astoria drives into Manhattan regularly. At the hearing, he expressed his personal concerns about safety in the city’s transit system.
“I do understand that a part of this move is to get people to use public transportation,” Gentile said. “I also use public transportation, but that continues to be unsafe, even more so during the pandemic, so the timing here just seems a bit not the best.”
The MTA’s proposal included tolls for commercial drivers and trucks ranging from $12 to $82, which the agency said could potentially reduce truck traffic between 21% and 81%. The funding generated from the program would go on to fund improvements to mass transit, with about 80% of it going toward subways and buses and 10% to each the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, the MTA said.
Like most New Yorkers, Forest Hills resident Pedro Rodriguez has relied on the public transit system his entire life. On Thursday, he voiced his support for the plan in hopes that it would lead to better investments into the MTA and reduce deaths caused by pollution and traffic violence.
“We need congestion pricing. We needed it three years ago and we need it now even more than ever,” Rodriguez said. “Reducing the number of cars on our streets will not only save countless lives, but it will also help fund the lifeline of our city, which is the MTA and our transit system.”
The affected toll zone, dubbed the “Central Business District,” draws roughly 7.67 million people on the average weekday, according to an MTA study. The capital plan was last pegged at $56 million with about 30% of that being covered by the congestion pricing proposal, the MTA said.
But Bob Friedrich, president of the glen Oaks Village co-op, said he was concerned about the effect congestion pricing would have on the seniors in his community who travel to Manhattan for medical care.
“There are no subway lines in our community and no 24-hour or seven-day mass transit services available in our community,” Friedrich said. “Our seniors could be your grandparents and we should not be punishing them or making the trip to a doctor more tough than it already is. Please try to understand the financial crush of your proposals.”
The congestion pricing plan was passed in 2019, but ultimately delayed because of inaction from the federal government during the Trump administration. If enacted, it would be the first of its kind nationwide.
Though not yet implemented, Luke Szabados, a Bronx resident who bikes to work every day, said he hopes congestion pricing and the potential to reduce pollution should be just the beginning.
“It's astounding how much pollution we have and is experienced by constituents in this city … I think that the MTA needs to take a step further, and needs to explore putting bike highways in the city such as the Hudson River Greenway,” Szabados said. “We need this immediately, but we can go bigger.”
The MTA has said it hopes to implement the tolls by the end of next year, or by early 2024.
Stephen Nessen contributed reporting.